By Andrew Mitchell
A few years ago Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would
occasionally attempt to bill their customers extra for exceeding their monthly
allowable bandwidth, prompting those people to immediately cancel their
subscriptions and enroll with another ISP that wasn’t as stingy when it came to
After a few years, the ISPs stopped trying. There are
theoretical limits as to how much you are allowed to upload and download in a
given month before extra charges start kicking in, but they are no longer
enforced for most residential customers.
Give people an inch, however, and they’ll always take a mile.
Between downloading movies from BitTorrent, viewing endless videos on YouTube,
filling online photo albums on websites like Facebook and Flickr, playing
online games, videoconferencing, and calling friends and family with VOIP,
people are consuming more bandwidth than ever and the ISPs are struggling to
cope during peak hours.
As Alaskan Senator and techno-coot Ted Stevens might remark,
the Internet is like a series of tubes. There are limits to how much
information can be crammed through the web at any given time, and when the
amount of information being transferred creates bottlenecks it’s always been up
to the ISPs to increase their carrying capacity to handle the load. Building
and boosting Internet infrastructure is costly, and ISPs want to be able to
recover at least some of those extra costs.
The question is how. One solution tabled in the U.S., and
supported by Senator Stevens, would allow ISPs to bill the websites themselves
for how much traffic they generate. That was an extremely unpopular suggestion
because it favoured big media companies with deep pockets over smaller
businesses, start-ups, and non-profits that rely on the web to get their
message out. There is also a concern that the media companies that own the ISPs
would use website billing as a pretense to shut down blogs and other sites over
differences of political opinion or taste — an affront to the underlying
concept of network neutrality that makes the web so democratic.
The other option would be for ISPs to come after their
customers to recover costs, which is challenging because they don’t want to
anger their fickle customers, and the ISPs could find themselves drawn into a
price war that costs them more money in the long run.
There are also regulatory bodies, like the Canadian
Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC), that guard against
monopolies and price gouging.
Still, with Internet use exploding and ISPs not benefiting from
the increase in use, something has to give.
Last week Canada’s biggest ISPs, Bell and Telus, made the case
that Internet use grown 30 per cent in three years, while the amount of
bandwidth taken up per user has effectively doubled. Meeting that demand means
building more fibre optic networks, installing more switches and servers, and
more staff to ensure the network runs smoothly. As a result they would like to
see people charged for how much they use, rather than charging them a flat fee
with some never used leeway to charge extra when their customers go over the
However, charging people for how much they use creates a few of
its own issues. For one thing, ISPs would have to get permission from the CRTC
to change the way they bill their customers, something that could be slow and
ultimately futile. Secondly, they have to have the participation of all ISPs to
go forward because if one company decides to bow out then the rest would have to
relent and go back to the current situation. Thirdly, people who use less
bandwidth are going to expect to be billed less, or to have unused bandwidth
carried over from month to month the same way minutes are transferred with some
cell phone plans.
I don’t expect people to feel too bad for the ISPs, given the
fact that a lot of them are raking in record profits these days — despite
the extra expense of growing and maintaining their networks. But I don’t want
the ISPs to lobby for the wrong kind of remedy either, crushing network
neutrality or switching over completely to a pay-as-you-go system.
The solution will likely involve some from of graduated billing
that would make web use cheaper for the majority of people who just use the web
occasionally for e-mail and web surfing, and extra charges for people who
exceed those preset limits. E-mail alerts could inform you when you’re closing
in on another tier of billing, giving people the option of waiting out the
month or paying the fee.
It would add expense to people who download movies and video
games, forcing the companies offering those downloads to lower their prices to
keep sales moving, while also reducing pirated movie and music downloads. Since
media companies and ISPs are already in bed together, ISPs could also overlook
or discount bandwidth from their affiliated media sites — if they can
find a way to do that without attracting anti-competition legal challenges from
Whatever the decision, I doubt things will be allowed to continue the way they are for much longer. I only hope that the CRTC consults with the public as well as the ISPs before making a decision.